Written by : Caroline Maguire, PCC, M.Ed.

3 Tips to Teach Empathy to Your Child

Kindness is key to overcoming negative behaviors.

Kid comforting consoling upset sad boy in school yard

Kindness is key to overcoming negative behaviors.

As parents we often hear our child say something sharp or insensitive and we cringe worrying our child is going to grow up to be a boorish clod. Stories of cruelty and insensitivity flow back to us through the grapevine—one child teasing someone who doesn’t speak English as her first language, another tween needling a child on the bus until she bursts into tears, a young tween approaching a lunch table to see that it is full and feels the chill from her classmates who do not turn to soften the rebuff but simply seem oblivious as the girl skulks away from the table and has to find someone else to sit with. And as parents we wonder if these children are cruel, self-centered or if they simply are so oblivious and insensitive, they do not see the pain of others. There is an answer to this problem of bullying, social media vitriol and general rude behavior—we must teach children empathy and kindness.

We all witness how cruelty and callousness divides a community—even if it is unintentional. Empathy is showing compassion and understanding another person’s experience and the ability to step into someone else’s shoes. Children who learn to feel empathy are less likely to bully, and more likely to understand and work collaboratively with others. So, ignoring a lack of empathy means ignoring a vital part of any social exchange. And the ability to show empathy is a life skill—if someone in your office does not receive a promotion you are expected to read the room and hold back your joy that you were promoted, if someone’s pet passes away you are expected to express sorrow—and when someone is in distress to ignore that distress does not win friends or make you a prospect for future management roles.

Children who learn to feel empathy are less likely to bully, and more likely to understand and work collaboratively with others.”

Environment, genetics, social and cultural factors influence our ability to feel empathy. Some children due to their own brain-based challenges do not read social cues, facial expressions and emotions, they don’t have the perspective or the self-awareness to see how others interpret their actions and behaviors. These children, for whatever reason, do not understand how they come across. Their intentions are good, but they don’t really know how to tune in and “walk in the other person’s shoes.”

Whatever the situation, teaching empathy must involve not only fostering a community to promote empathy and kindness, but also coaching children individually to help guide them toward greater understanding of what kind and empathetic behavior looks like. We can do this by modeling empathy and reinforcing it with all actions and messages children hear so they can learn to “walk in someone else’s shoes.”

Here are Three Tips to Teach Your Child How to Be More Empathetic:

  • Point out emotions and bring attention at the right time to the emotional experience of others and have conversations with your child about another person’s experience. In the minivan or on the go, continue to ask him questions when his conversations present as forgetting other people’s feelings. For example: What do you think is going on in your friend’s life? What did you notice about her reaction to the situation?
  • Collaboratively talk about your child’s behavior when he is rude or lacks empathy and ask him to interpret how his behavior made you feel.  Ask your child: How do you think I feel when you correct me? What did you mean to do?
  • Guide children to look at what another person’s situation or point of view may be; rather than preaching to care about someone, help your child step into the shoes of his peer and ask your child questions to help him reflect on other people’s state of mind. What do other people feel? What is the reaction to their behavior? What did the other people’s facial expressions tell them about their feelings?
Some children naturally begin to demonstrate empathy as early as 12 months old; others struggle for whatever reason and may demonstrate rude and hurtful behavior. But the ability to understand other people’s emotions and respond with kindness is a life skill essential to help children be part of any group throughout their lives.
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